SA water infrastructure is key - expert

2013-05-21 09:33
Msunduzi Municipality wastes 63% of its water, among the worst figures in the country, according to a Water Research Commission (WRC) report released recently. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Msunduzi Municipality wastes 63% of its water, among the worst figures in the country, according to a Water Research Commission (WRC) report released recently. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Maintenance of water infrastructure is key to ensuring that losses in the system are limited and water is used more effectively, a research has said.

Water is lost to the network via the pipes that burst and people who make illegal connections to use water.

"There's a difference between unaccounted for water and lost water. Unaccounted for water includes the water that is ‘stolen’ by poor people who do not pay for it. It has been used, but it has not been paid for," Dr Jo Barnes, an epidemiologist in the Division of Community Health at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University, told News24.

According to a Water Research Commission report titled Counting the lost drops, South African municipalities lose an average of 37% of supply, labelled as non-revenue water.

Barnes argued that municipalities should be proactive in the upgrading of water networks, rather than carrying out repairs when a pipe failed.

"So what they do is they only go and repair – they see the word maintenance as repair. And the proactive replacement of pipes over the whole network in that area is actually very small.

Water tariffs

"I've been starting to count in the last number of years on my way to work how many spills there are, just simply running down the street. Eventually they realised they will have to replace some of it; this area is over 50 years old," she said of her experience in Stellenbosch, as an example.

According to the department of water affairs' Municipal Water Services Performance Assessment 2012 Report, water tariffs should be levied in a manner that reflected the economic realities of the country.

"Tariffs should be pro-poor in their orientation and affordable to all households (especially vulnerable groups)," the report says.

Vandalism and theft have, in some areas caused losses to the water network and municipalities that are cash-strapped struggle to fund repairs or do preventative maintenance.

"Municipalities are incurring loss of revenue through unaccounted for water exacerbated by leaking pipes and taps. Water leaks are a major cause of concern that if not arrested timeously it might lead to disaster," deputy water minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi said in April during a visit to the Kareeberg local municipality in the Northern Cape province.

The repair and maintenance of the water network may be described as urgent, but Barnes said her dealings with the City of Cape Town to understand the issue has been a frustrating exercise.

"I wish I could answer you on what then city does, but it's sometimes difficult - and I'm trying to be tactful here - to reach the right people who can give the answer that isn't either defensive or spin."


She argued that municipalities should keep an inventory of organisations that produce bulk waste water that could be easier to recycle.

"What I'm asking for is... Do they have a survey of places that produce locally contaminated water that the city can investigate the recycling potential? I'm not sure.

"So what I'm looking at is using it [the water] for washing down sidewalks and all those kinds of things that aren't directly related to human use," Barnes said.

The impending shortage of water could have serious implications for the country's economic growth.

"Should the status quo in management practices remain, a gap of 17% between water demand and supply is forecast by 2030. This gap would have serious social and political implications and strongly affect South Africa economic growth," Brand SA said its SA info website.

"If we continue with this trend of using water as if it is an infinite resource, we may find ourselves in some form of trouble," Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said on Monday, though she was careful to insist that her department could manage the security of supply.

Infrastructure upgrades

According to the municipal water report, even large metros like the City of Johannesburg have water management issues that it has to remedy. The report scored the metro a zero score on Water Use Efficiency.

"The metro has achieved a score of zero in this area, which indicates unsatisfactory water use efficiency," the reports says, though it praised the city for water demand management initiatives.

Barnes who has written a chapter in the new book, Sustainable Stellenbosch - Opening Dialogues, said that immediate infrastructure upgrades would give municipalities time to investigate recycling and alternative water programmes.

"We must first mend what we have and then go and look at the easy recycling where we can do it safely outside of human use like washing cars and sidewalks and that sort of thing, and lastly... give them time to see where they can implement both water saving and water recycling."

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
Read more on:    water  |  environment

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